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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Corrections secretary stands up Senate panel

Corrections and Rehabilitation Secretary Ana Escobar Pabón

By The Star Staff

Corrections and Rehabilitation (DCR) Secretary Ana Escobar Pabón stood up the senators Wednesday who had summoned her to give an account of what happened in the case of the irregular release of Hermes Ávila Vázquez, a convicted murderer who killed a woman several weeks ago in Manatí while enjoying the privilege.

Escobar Pabón sent a letter in which she justified her non-appearance by arguing that she was cited on short notice. Given the situation, Senate President José Luis Dalmau Santiago warned that the official would be summoned again in the next few hours “under penalty of contempt” as provided in the political code of Puerto Rico.

The island House of Representatives, meanwhile, approved in a voice vote this week a resolution ordering the holding of a Committee of the Whole and special session of interpellation to demand answers from Escobar Pabón as to the actions of her agency.

House Resolution 1163, authored by Citizens’ Victory Movement Rep. Mariana Nogales Molinelli, proposes to summon the official to answer questions to a Committee of the Whole made up of the lower chamber’s 51 representatives.

A summons was filed Wednesday for Escobar Pabón to appear next Tuesday, May 14, at 1 p.m. before the legislative body.

“It is important that we know and that the people of Puerto Rico know what is happening in the DCR,” Puerto Rican Independence Party Rep. Denis Márquez Lebrón said late Tuesday. “We want information about the contracts, about the items in the contracts, about the execution of the department. There are multiple questions we can raise. It seems to me that the measure is aimed beyond a case that is terrible and we would hope to have a response.”

Popular Democratic Party Rep. Héctor Ferrer Santiago said the House has the constitutional power to oversee and ensure that the truth is known.

“This House has the power to call the secretaries of the agencies to ask them questions in order to hold them accountable to the people of Puerto Rico,” he said, stressing that the interpellation is due to the promotions granted by the DCR secretary and the way the agency is executed.

The measure highlights several allegations against the designated secretary, who was appointed by Gov. Pedro Pierluisi Urrutia in February 2021, and her alleged negligence in supervising DCR staff, especially the health services offered by Physician Correctional.

It points out that during Escobar Pabón’s administration, an increase in the number of deaths in correctional institutions -- from about 47 for fiscal year 2018-2019 and 59 in 2019-2020, before her appointment, to 80 in 2020-2021, 94 in 2021-2022 and 61 as of May 17, 2023 -- has been reported.

“In April 2023, 10 inmates died,” reads the resolution’s preamble. “About half of the deaths that have been classified are attributed to unnatural causes, including overdoses of opioids, whose [presence in] institutions appears to have increased and which appears to be the main cause of the increase in deaths.”

The bill also highlights several shortcomings the department has experienced, as well as numerous issues facing the agency, which encompass all aspects of the prison system, from the provision of health services, disease transmission and medical diets, to the availability of educational programs, safety and staffing.

House Speaker Rafael “Tatito” Hernández Montañez on Wednesday also sent a letter to Justice Secretary Domingo Emanuelli Hernández, in which he requests that he confirm whether Escobar Pabón is suspected of a crime or is the subject of any criminal investigation led by the Justice Department that is directly or indirectly related to her performance in the position she occupies.

“The Corrections secretary has already said publicly that she delivered the file related to the mishandling of the femicide case of Hermes Ávila Vázquez to the Department of Justice,” Hernández Montañez said. “However, it is important to clarify whether the official herself is being investigated for her role in the release of this criminal before, during and after it.”

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